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Making history

For the first time in the history of the South Caucasus states, a woman will hold the presidential post. Salome Zurabishvili who was recently elected as the President of the Republic of Georgia is also the last to be elected directly by citizens in accordance with the constitutional amendments. After a long and brutal political campaign which polarised society, Georgians are now facing a new situation. Their expectations remain limited.

December 14, 2018 - Jan Brodowski - Articles and Commentary

Salome Zurabishvili election campaign poster. Photo: Jan Brodowski

Salome Zurabishvili is the first female who won apresidential election but not the first woman holding this position in modern history of Georgia. Previously Nino Burjanadze was serving as an acting head of state twice. Firstly after the Rose Revolution when Shevardnadze resigned (2003-2004) and secondly when Saakashvili stepped down and returned after early presidential elections (2007-2008). In both cases it was a temporary solution based on the constitutional regulations. Burjanadze was the speaker of the parliament (2001-2008), actively supporting transition of power during the Rose Revolution and keeping her position as a one of the most influential politicians at that time. Cooperation with Saakashvili, like for many others supporters of the young leader, ended for Burjanadze with disappointment and unfulfilled ambitions. In many ways the political paths of Burjanadze and Zurabishvili are very similar. Both of them created their own political parties to challenge former patron after a “political divorce” with Saakashvili. Both decided to run for the presidential post and last but not least their opinions concerning Russia are controversial.

Photo: Jan Brodowski

A long way to the top

Even if Georgians are proud of their historical figures like the Saint Nino from Cappadocia or Queen Tamara the level of political engagement by women, acceptance of their leadership or aspiration for the highest posts are relatively low. Parties created by Burjanadze (Democratic Movement – United Georgia) and Zurabishvili (Georgia’s Way) could not become influential because of Saakashvili political monopoly. In 2010 Zurabishvili decided to temporarily quit politics. Two years later Burjanadze decided not to run for parliament elections with her party and not to compete with Georgian Dream. However both expressed their interest in the presidential election in 2013. Zurabishvili’s bid was rejected by the Central Election Commission. Burjanadze ran against the candidate of Georgian Dream – Giorgi Margvelashvili without success (she got 10.19 per cent of the votes and got third place).

This year Burjanadze decided to boycott the elections because of the limitations put on presidential power. Zurabishvili made her choice to run and had to face brutal campaign.  “She is not one of us” said one of my interlocutors in Tbilisi a few days before elections and asked “where was she when we fought for our country?”. Another one stressed that “she does not understand our culture,  she is not orthodox and her mentality is different than ours”. They are partially right. Zurabishvili could not fight for Georgia because her ancestors left the country after the fall of the first republic in 1921. She was born in 1952 and grew up in France where the Georgian diaspora was seeking asylum during the Soviet times. She finally returned to Tbilisi as a French ambassador. After the Rose Revolution, Saakashvili offered her not only a citizenship but also a post of foreign minister in his government. She was the first woman in Georgia holding this position. Nevertheless misunderstandings with the president led her to the opposition – with a strong view on the situation in the country, describing it as a “parody of democracy”.

Not the cleanest of campaigns 

Photo: Jan Brodowski

Opinions presented by Zurabishvili as well as her linguistic deficiencies are often negatively evaluated. Almost all actions targeted at her candidacy during the campaign period have been fueled by her own mistakes. Lack of clear vision on relations with Russia or a rather unpopular stance making Georgia an aggressor state during August war in 2008 helped to create negative image of Zurabishvili. As an independent candidate, with support of the ruling Georgian Dream, she saw herself as a mediator between the state and the people. She also stressed the importance of gender issues and social care. But in this presidential campaign, when the political stake was incredibly high, the program was not the most important issue. Attacks were brutal and painful for her personally. During a meeting with EU ambassadors Zurabishvili complained that all attacks on her aren’t fair and that the accusations are false. Opinions presented by my interlocutors confirmed that the campaign of her opponents, based on these false accusations, was successful. Accusations dominated in this year’s elections. According to the OSCE Election Observation Mission preliminary report “the negative character of the campaign on both sides undermined the process”. Some experts describing situation in Georgia during the past few weeks stated that it “was step backwards in the history of Georgian elections”.

Even if we are facing deterioration of the political environment one thing remains positive – gender issues. Participation of women in the political life in Georgia is changing. In the current government three ministries are led by females (one of them, Maya Tshitishvili is also serving as a vice prime minister). Comparing with states in the region it makes a real difference. In the Armenian government there is just one woman holding ministerial position (Ministry of Culture – Lilit Makunts). In Azerbaijan, despite the fact that president Aliyev appointed his wife Mehriban as the first vice president, no woman can be found in the current government as a head of a ministry and just one is heading a state committee (The State Committee for Family, Women and Children Affairs – Hijran Huseynova). The Georgian parliament is also the regional exception with 23 female MPs and the Gender Equality Commitee. Until the presidential elections, Salome Zurabishvili was also among the elected females. She was an independent candidate, elected member of parliament in Tbilisi in 2016. At that time, Georgian Dream decided not to appoint any candidate in the election district where Zurabishvili was running for office. Relations with Georgian Dream remain crucial for Zurabishvili. Without the party’s neutral position she would not have won the race in 2016. With no support of the ruling party the chances for success would be lower also this year. In one of the early surveys presenting prospects of front runner candidates Zurabishvili was in third place after Grigol Vashadze and David Bakradze. Thanks to political backing and – what is most important – financal support she could reach the second round. Almost all of Tbilisi was covered by posters and billboards promoting her and a huge amount of money was spent during the campaign. Approximately 78 per cent of all donations were channeled for Zurabishvili’s political actions.

Nevertheless the result after the first round was far from her expectations. For Georgian Dream it was a strong signal that Georgian society is tired. Kakha Kaladze, mayor of Tbilisi, admitted after the first round that this signal should be taken into account by party leaders. Zurabishvili won but the difference between her and Vashadze was minimal. It was also the first time in the modern history of Georgia when a second round of presidential elections was necessary. From a legal point of view it was also a problem because of the lack of a legal fremwork. Ambassador Geert-Hinrich Ahrens, the Head of the Election Observation Mission, stressed that the OSCE’s recommendations had to be reviewed. Still the Georgian authority did not respond in a proper manner. Instead of that, all efforts were targeted at Zurabishvili’s success and all measures were used. Traditional ones like pressure on employees of the budgetary sphere and new ones like legal actions allowing government to pay citizens’ loans. In the view of some commentators “democratic standards declined sharply after the first round, making this by far the worst election during the last years”. Eventually Zurabishvili won, but for her and the Georgian Dream it was a ‘Pyrrhic Vitory’.

President of the regions

During a meeting with the outgoing president, both Margvelashvili and Zurabishvili focused on “democratic transition of presidential power”. On 16th of December the presidential inauguration will take place in the capital of Kachetia region – Telavi. One of the two districts where Zurabishvili lost her run for presidency. This decision was made based on an idea of the president-elect, that she aims to be the president of the regions and would like to pay attention to the regions. This is a clever move. After the elections and the whole negative campaign, Georgian society is divided deeper than ever before. Zurabishvili should try to find the way to the hearts of all citizens. If she reaches this goal she will make a real change. The role of the president in Georgia is definitely different than it was a few years ago but even with limited power the presidential office remains a symbol of the state. Almost one hundred years ago the ancestors of Zurabishvili left the country without hope. At that time no one could predict that some day there would be a chance to return. Zurabishvili is making history not only as the first female president of Georgia, but also as a descendant of founding fathers of the first republic, closing in some way a historical circle.          

Jan Brodowski holds a PhD in political science from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. His research focuses mainly on geopolitics, modern diplomacy and democratisation in the post-Soviet countries.

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